Harold Wilson called a referendum on Europe 40 years ago. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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Back to the future? Britain’s 1975 referendum on Europe

On this day 40 years ago, Harold Wilson announced that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Community would be held within six months.

On 23 January 1975, Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community would be held within six months. Forty years on, the pressure for a similar in-out referendum on EU membership is mounting. David Cameron has promised (assuming he stays in power) to hold a vote no later than the end of 2017.

The circumstances that produced the 1975 referendum and those that may well produce another in the near future are uncannily similar.

In the early Seventies, Labour was split over Europe. The parliamentary party was overwhelmingly in favour of Britain’s membership of the Common Market, but much of the rank and file wanted out. When Tony Benn, the unofficial leader of Labour’s anti-marketeers, first put forward the idea of holding a referendum, the party leadership snubbed his proposal. But, as Jim Callaghan presciently remarked in 1970, the referendum idea was "a little rubber life raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb".

Five years later, the whole party had indeed clambered into the little rubber life raft and the Conservatives poured scorn on them for doing so. Margaret Thatcher derided Labour’s decision to hold a referendum as, "a tactical device to get over a split in their own party". She accused the government of being, "incapable of making a decision’ and ‘passing the buck to the people".

Those words could come back to bite Thatcher’s successors at Tory HQ.
 

From “lotus eaters” to “benefits tourism”

Extraordinary as it may seem from the perspective of 2015, immigration was a complete non-issue in the 1975 referendum. The same, however, can’t be said for emigration. At the height of the campaign, Tony Benn warned that the, "increasing emigration of our workers and their families to the Continent in search of jobs will be the painful consequence for this country of our continued membership of the European Economic Community". 

Meanwhile, the pro-EEC Labour deputy leader Ted Short denounced Brits who had emigrated to the Mediterranean, calling them "lotus eaters" – a reference to a BBC drama about British expats living on Crete. Those who chose to retire to the Costa del Sol were, in the popular imagination of the time, morally degenerate, unpatriotic tax dodgers.

Today, 1.8m Brits live elsewhere in the EU (many of them on the Costa del Sol). Almost a quarter of them claim a UK state pension – arguably causing a pretty significant drain on the public purse. Yet nobody worries about the costs of emigration any more, just immigration. Why?

Logically, this inversion is hard to explain. Yes, immigration from Europe has gone up exponentially over the last forty years, but so too has emigration to the Continent. The numbers offer, at best, a partial explanation. Much more significant is the shift in the way we see ourselves.

Britain in the Seventies was a nation low on self-confidence, run by politicians whose guiding principle was solidarity and who could still remember an age when the strength of a country was determined by the manpower it could muster, rather than by its GDP. It made sense in this context to worry about people leaving.

Today, Britain is more paradoxical. On the one hand, we arrogantly assume that the whole world must want to come and live here. Yet, at the same time, we guard our privileges jealously, afraid that there may not be enough to go round for much longer.

 

The business view

If there’s one thing that trumps immigration in the EU debate, it’s economics. Although the scope of the European project has expanded dramatically over the last four decades, for many a referendum today would still be essentially about an economic calculation: are we better off in or out?

In 1975, the business community was pretty clear about its answer to that question. A month before the referendum, The Economist published a poll of 653 chief executives, in which a staggering 95 per cent declared their support for staying in the Common Market. No fewer than 363 companies made contributions of more than £100 to the Britain in Europe campaign, whilst just one gave more than £100 to the rival National Referendum Campaign. This disparity resulted in one of the most lopsided campaigns, at least in terms of funding, in British political history. The pro-EEC side raised almost £1.5 million (about £13.5 million in today’s money). In contrast, the anti-EEC camp raised less than £150,000 (most of which came from the government).

It’s unlikely that business leaders will be as unanimous in their views (or in where they put their money) come 2017. The rise and rise of non-European markets in recent years means that shoring up our ties to Europe seems less urgent today than it did in the Seventies. At this stage, industry spokespeople are focusing on the case for reform. But, when it comes to a referendum, most businesspeople will most likely support staying in. The consequences of not doing so may no longer be unthinkable, but they still don’t look all that good.

 

How the campaign was won: the leadership effect

In April 1975, a poll was conducted to test the popularity of various prominent politicians, and to discover how well known their views on EEC membership were. The results made happy reading for europhiles. Eight pro-marketeers (Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Jeremy Thorpe, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Willie Whitelaw, Vic Feather and Jim Callaghan) were found to be "respected and liked" by more than 30 per cent of those polled. The only anti-Europe spokesman to come close to these ratings was Enoch Powell, who was liked by 33 per cent. But he was a much more divisive figure, with almost as many (31 per cent) saying they didn’t like or trust him.

Though probably not decisive, the popularity of the pro-European leadership almost certainly did have a big influence on the referendum result (67.2 per cent for continuing EEC membership). Whatever happens in 2017, one thing is certain: the days when a well-liked, pro-European political elite could effectively control the outcome of a referendum are long gone.

Richard Roberts is a a freelance writer on contemporary British politics. Read his blog here.

Richard Roberts is a freelance writer on British politics and history, and blogs here.

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A tale of two electorates: will rural France vote for Emmanuel Macron?

His chief rival, Marine Le Pen, was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics.

It was a wet night in Paris, but hundreds of people were queuing outside the Antoine Theatre. It was standing room only to see Emmanuel Macron tonight, as it has been for weeks.

The 39-year-old former investment banker gave his usual energetic performance, delivering a well-practised pitch for a progressive, business-friendly and unabashedly pro-European France. His reward: a standing ovation and chants of Macron, président!

This theatre appearance on 8 March was an appropriate stop for a campaign that has been packed with more political drama than a series of House of Cards. Ahead of the first round of voting in the French presidential election on 23 April, the centrist independent has gone from underdog to the man most likely to beat the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. His other main rival, François Fillon of the right-wing Republicans, has been hampered by allegations that he paid his wife and children as parliamentary assistants, despite scant evidence of them doing any work.

Macron, meanwhile, has been attracting support from disenchanted voters on both left and right.

“It’s a new party, a new movement, a new face,” said Claire Ravillo-Albert, a 26-year-old human resources student and ex-Socialist in the queue outside the theatre. “We’re worlds away from the old Socialists and the Republicans here.”

Macron is not a typical outsider, having made millions in banking before serving as an advisor to François Hollande and as economy minister from 2014 to 2016. Nor can his ideas be described as radical. He is “of the left”, he says, but “willing to work with the right”.

For many he seems to embody an enticing alternative to the tired political class. Macron has never run for office before and if successful, would be the youngest president of the modern French republic. Many recruits to his one-year-old party En Marche! are young and relatively new to politics.

“I think he’ll change the French political landscape, and we need that,” said Olivier Assouline, a bank worker in an immaculate grey suit. “He knows business, he knows the state. I think he’s the right person at the right moment,” said the 44-year-old, who previously voted for right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy.

Many queuing for the rally were underwhelmed by Socialist achievements over the past five years – not least the dismal state of the economy – and had little enthusiasm for Fillon, a social conservative and economic Thatcherite.

Macron’s manifesto sticks firmly to the centre-ground. He has promised tax cuts for companies and millions of poor and middle-class families, as well as a few offbeat ideas like a one-off 500-euro grant for each 18-year-old to spend on books and cultural activities.

“With his central positioning, Macron is taking from everywhere – he has the capacity to seduce everyone,” says Frédéric Dabi, deputy director at the polling company IFOP. They estimate that Macron will take half the votes that went to Hollande when he won the last presidential election in 2012, and 17 per cent of those that went to runner-up Sarkozy.

Outside the theatre, the line was split between voters from the left and the right. But there was one word on almost everyone’s lips: Europe. At a time of continental soul-searching, Macron’s converts have chosen a candidate who backs the European Union as a guarantor of peace and celebrates free movement.

“He’s unusual in that he puts that centre-stage,” said Emma, a 27-year-old legal worker who preferred to be identified by her first name only. “Macron offers a good compromise on economic issues. But for me it’s also about Europe, because I think that’s our future.”

With Fillon and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon both languishing behind in the polls, the second round of the presidential vote, on 7 May, is likely to be a contest between Macron and Le Pen. These are both candidates who claim to have moved beyond left-right politics, and who are both offering opposing visions of France.

This is also a tale of two electorates. Le Pen was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics, traipsing around deindustrialised towns appealing to those who felt left behind by globalisation.

In the queue to see Macron were lawyers, PR consultants, graphic designers; students, gay couples and middle-class Parisians of multiple ethnicities. These are the representatives of a cosmopolitan, successful France. It was hard not to be reminded of the “metropolitan elite” who voted against Brexit.

Macron has called for investment in poorer communities, and his campaign staff pointedly invited onstage a struggling single mother as a warm-up act that night.

Yet his Socialist rival, Benoit Hamon, accuses him of representing only those who are doing pretty well already. It is hard for some to disassociate Macron from his education at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration – university of choice for the political elite – and his career at Rothschild. One infamous incident from early in the campaign sticks in the memory, when he told a pair of workers on strike: “You don’t scare me with your t-shirts. The best way to pay for a suit is to work.” For Macron, work has usually involved wearing a tie.

IFOP figures show him beating Le Pen soundly in when it comes to the voting intentions of executives and managers – 37 per cent to her 18 per cent. But when it comes to manual workers, she takes a hefty 44 per cent to his 17. He would take Paris; she fares better in rural areas and among the unemployed.

If Frédéric Dabi is to be believed, Macron’s bid for the centre-ground could pay off handsomely. But not everyone is convinced.

“He’s the perfect representative of the electorate in the big globalised cities,” the geographer Christophe Guilluy told Le Point magazine in January.

“But it’s the peripheries of France that will decide this presidential election.”